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American Athlete: The Strength to Succeed

May 15, 2017

For years, coaches and athletes have been using strength and conditioning to enhance performance for their sports. Because athletes need to function at high levels, training has incorporated programs that establish protocols to address factors such as power production, force development and speed improvement.  As “sport-specific” training has become modern day terminology, coaches and trainers have pushed aside some of the fundamental keys to improving the total athlete, and forgotten the base that builds athletic skills and performance: proper movement patterns (skip, hop, strike), coordination of those movement skills, and the appropriate level of strength needed to gain the highest levels of power, force and speed that an individual can achieve.

It has been said that strength is the backbone on which all other qualities lie.

In training, we seem to have set our sights on being fast and building speed, power, reactive ability, and more. All of these qualities of performance are vital, but having proper strength may be more important.  If he doesn’t have enough raw horsepower in the engine, an athlete won’t be going anywhere or doing anything in a hurry.  For this reason, absolute muscular strength, which is how much weight someone can move regardless of body size or weight, must be brought to optimal levels. Then, the other components that use strength can be built on top of this layer and can be used for what is commonly called in today’s training world “functional” strength.

Many may be asking, “Why spend hours to develop maximum strength when force production, force reduction, speed and quickness are key factors that can determine high levels of performance?”  It might be easier to give sports examples to answer this question and demonstrate how working to higher strength levels will be a vital point in performance.

Let’s start with speed itself.  We know that speed is about force production, what is said to be “usable strength” as well as proper technique and movement patterns that produce optimal force.  As Newton stated, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.  So by putting more force, not absolute strength, into the ground, we move faster.  That last statement might be viewed as a defense for spending more time with force production and speed training.  Here is where we need to put on the brakes for a minute.  With such a great amount of force production, we also have to be able to stabilize and handle that force as we transfer force and weight from leg to leg, and through the whole body.  It is said that in sprinting, the force on a single limb can be six to eight times a person’s body weight.  So a 200-pound runner would be generating loads of 1200 to 1600 pounds.  If the runner can’t handle that much stress, or load, there will be “energy leaks” because proper form cannot be maintained, and instability may increase risk of injury.  “Energy leaks” are considered a waste of motion that causes power and force to be sent in directions that don’t help with performance. By not preparing the body for the high levels of strength that are needed, the ability to gain maximum levels of speed or the ability to improve speed is hindered. Also, without strength training, many of the drills that are used to improve speed and agility—plyometrics, resisted or assisted running and other speed tools—are not effective and the runner is put at risk for injury and developing bad techniques. 

The greater an athlete’s maximal strength is to begin with, the more of it can be converted into “sport-specific” strength endurance or explosive power.  Take a scenario where two linemen in American football, an offensive player and a defensive player, are competing in a game.  If, at contact point, all things are equal—body weight, size, speed, lateral skills and movement skills—but one player has a higher level of strength, who will win the battle in the trenches?  Strength coach and expert in periodization Tudor Bompa, author of Periodization Training: Theory and Methodology, has said that “no visible increments of power or speed-strength (force times velocity) are possible without clear gains in maximal strength.”  If we increase strength levels, we also increase the amount of force generated. All things being equal, the more force you can apply in a movement, the more there will be an increase in speed, in higher jumping ability, in distance in throwing and in performance improvement. 

Another example would be in basketball.  Let’s take superman Dwight Howard.  The force and power he can generate on his inside game is a key to his success, but we also need to realize that it’s his strength level that allows him to get position by the basket.  He is able to move defenders where ever he wants to move them, and take himself, along with two or three opponents hanging on him, to the rim for success.  Or take a look at different events in the Olympics. From traditional weightlifting, to rowing, from boxing to track and field events, strength levels were either the limiting factor that meant missing a chance to stand on top of podium, or the reason gold was received.  American sensation Gabrielle (Gabbie) Douglas was like dynamite, strength in a small package.  Not only did her speed and power play a role in bringing home the gold, but also the strength she has allowed her to hold positions in the floor routine, maintain control on the balance beam and do the stunts on the uneven bars.  Her ability to stabilize different areas of her body, while moving with fluid motion other segments, was key to her Olympic success.   

Whether to improve levels of speed or to achieve higher levels of power and force production over longer periods of time, the building, developing and maintaining of high levels of strength for optimal performance levels is vital to success in any sport or activity.  Strength should not be the forgotten component in a training program, but one of the foundations to build on to reach the highest level of performance for your sport.

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